I have a confession to make: I've never really watched TV. Oh sure, I'd see episodes of Friends and The Simpsons on plane flights. I remember watching cartoons on Saturdays occasionally before I entered grade school. There are enough TVs in the world that I've managed to catch chunks of Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Survivor, although I've never subscribed to cable. And while, like many of my friends, I've been a "content provider" for television production companies, I haven't cared about television beyond the work I was asked to do.
That's the extent of my television experience: one entire young adult life in which I neglected to actively participate in the world's favorite pastime. And yet I've always been curious. When my friends would talk about shows and commercials, I'd smile and nod and keep my mouth shut. I would furtively read the entertainment pages of magazines and newspapers, or pump my entertainment-industry friends for information, just so I wasn't completely lost. But TV - with the ads and the multiple channels and the changing schedules - always remained something that I knew only in theory.
So, I decided to subscribe to cable -- full-blown, hook-me-up-in-every-way, bill-me-to-the-moon cable. The Comcast technician came to my apartment, put his orange cones at the corners of his van -- I loved the fact that cable delivery looked almost like a health emergency -- and 15 minutes later, I was digital. I've watched TV now for the entire month of February and into March. That means I've lived through the sweeps period, when every show tries to entice viewers to boost its ratings. I caught parts of the Super Bowl and the Oscars. I've lived through Nipplegate. I've watched hundreds of hours of things that I never knew existed.
And it feels like I imagine a fly feels like when it hits the window of a freight train.
But I can now tell you that Judge Judy is insane. That Dr. Phil is nothing more than the celebrity love child of Richard Simmons and Jerry Springer. That Ellen DeGeneres looks like her medication finally kicked in. That E! should be less liberal in its use of Paris Hilton. And that it's about time Sex in the City ended; it was starting to look like a prequel to The Golden Girls.
The philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said that "The medium is the message." In terms of television, he was literally right. When people say TV, they mean the stuff on TV. Television, I discovered shortly after the cable man left, is nothing more than a bunch of shows. Some of them are very short, and try to sell you things, like "the world's most beautiful air freshener." Others try to tell you things like "this here snake is a beauty, and she's dangerous too!" There is television to amuse us with dumb jokes, and television to scare us with melodrama and bad hair.
This didn't worry me. Plenty of people seem to enjoy the shows on TV, and I'm not a snob. I like Stephen King, I laugh at fart jokes, and my favorite fast food restaurant is Taco Bell. I felt like I could at least enjoy the good shows on television, and tolerate - possibly even find something of merit - in the bad shows. Plenty of people seem to do that every day.
The first problem came when I discovered that watching TV is a habit, and that I had never learned the habit. Most television-watchers I spoke to seemed to be the sort that sat down one or two evenings a week to watch favorite shows. But they also admitted that, in most cases, those few nights encouraged them to sit down during another few nights. Because television is always on, continually streaming into our homes, there is the assumption that at any time there will be at least one channel showing something good.
At first, I agreed with this. After flipping through the channels randomly, noticing that there were a lot of shows on, I came across an old movie: The Days of Wine and Roses. I was delighted. "Television," I wrote in my TV diary, "has old movies playing on it. Good old movies. Maybe there's a use for it after all." I quickly decided that television was a box full of pop culture, and I spent the next few days examining the contents.
"Dr. No is on!" I wrote the next day, in a bout of strange excitement. "After you click endlessly through the channels that have stultifying educational footage and political blowhards yammering at each other in front of bad backdrops, you find good stuff. Like Dr. No."
Suddenly, the extensive lineup of old to middle-aged films on TV seemed a lot better than I had remembered them being. I caught The Phantom Menace early in the month, and even though it had seemed so bad in the theater, now, on TV, it seemed better. I was so busy being distracted and comforted by my own home, my own food and my own life that when I watched it on television, I didn't feel smothered by George Lucas's insanely boring plot. I decided that "it's an underrated film. Watching it again, I'm impressed with the way that Lucas opted for the look and feel of noir films and 1950s sci-fi, in order to suggest the technology and design prior to the 1970s-looking original trilogy. And Ewan McGregor has great chemistry with Haydn Christensen. They're like an old married couple, or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn with light sabers." Clearly, if it could improve The Phantom Menace, television couldn't be all bad.
Television was winning me over. Because I had digital cable, I decided to take advantage of a feature that lets you browse the day's TV lineup on every channel and set small reminders to pop up at the bottom of the screen when it was time for the show or movie to start. Then all you need to do is click the reminder, and you're taken across hundreds of channels to see the old movie that you wanted to watch.
Unfortunately, I learned that the reminders only worked if you had the TV turned on. They didn't fire up the tube for me when it was time. I had to be sitting there already, watching something else. This is how I discovered how bad television is.
The following week of watching television was hell. "How could people watch this?" I asked myself as meaningless show after meaningless show paraded across my television screen. Advertisements, which I had always expected, were everywhere. If I did find something good that wasn't a movie, it was almost always interrupted a few minutes after I had started to enjoy it. One evening, not wanting to watch anything on television, but feeling the need to spend some time trying to understand what television really was, I flipped through each channel, writing down whether it was explicitly advertising something, or playing a show. After a few days of going through the entire cable spectrum at different times, my statistics revealed that approximately one-fifth of the channels were showing advertising at any given time.
When you consider that the full cable package costs more than $95 each month, the cost for bringing advertising into your home amounts to nearly $20. If people were not only putting up with advertisements, but actively paying for a service that features them so prominently, I decided that there must be something extremely compelling about TV that I was missing.
But I still couldn't bring myself to spend so much time doing something as uninteresting as watching mediocre entertainment and sitting through advertisements. I started to multi-task in front of the television, distracting myself with projects that I had been meaning to start. I spent hours in the kitchen preparing food while the television droned on nearby. I even tried watching TV by muting the sound while I listened to music and read books. In short, I probably became the only person in America who, instead of procrastinating by watching TV, was procrastinating about watching TV.
Finally, a friend tipped me off. "Just flip through the channels," he said. "Don't worry about what you're watching."
That's how I discovered the zen of television. Like a giant kaleidoscope that sits in the middle of the living room, the television is at its best when it's allowed to change. Flipping channels not only frees you from having to try to care about what you're watching, but it allows you to juxtapose things that you've never encountered together before.
This first happened to me after watching a show on VH1 called "Bands Reunited." The basic premise is that the show's producers try to stage a reunion of a mostly-forgotten band. First they show one or two of the main band members. Most of them have landed on earth after their brush with stardom and are busy raising kids, building homes, and occasionally headlining events like Pig Out in the Park. Once we meet these people and hear how they've moved on, we track down the more elusive, emotionally volatile band members. These inevitably provide the show with drama, as old wounds dating back to the Reagan administration are torn open in front of the world in a desperate (and often hilarious) attempt to look like rock stars one last time. After this display, everyone learns their lessons, conflicts are resolved, the band plays together again, and we're reminded of why we forgot them in the first place.
Later that day, with my mind still reeling from the fact that I had just discovered a show that could cause the reunion of the original Van Halen, I caught a rerun of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. And I realized that in ten years, we'll probably be able to watch a show that tries to reunite the original Queer Eye guys. We'll hear about how they helped change the social climate for gay people, but the limelight just got to be too intense for some of them. We'll meet their boyfriends, and hear about the heterosexual scandals of one of them. And we'll watch them get together for one last makeover, because some producer somewhere will figure out how to make a reality television show about a former reality television show.
Reality TV. I knew I would have to contend with it sooner or later, and since my interest in the television was waning quickly, I decided I should spend a little time learning about the myriad of reality shows that existed, so that I could know what to watch.
Hoping for a crash course in what I had missed, I visited the Web site of Extreme Makeover. Gushing that the show's participants were given a "Cinderella-like experience," the site helpfully added that "surgery footage is of an extremely graphic nature. Viewer discretion is advised."
I thought this was a joke -- just marketing exaggeration combined peppered with bad clich & eacute;s. But when I finally saw the show, I discovered how accurate the Web site was. The surgery was graphic, though not much was shown. No, the most gruesome part of the show was the way that the low self-esteem and physical discomfort of real people were subjected to an entirely unnatural "Cinderella-like experience." What I saw were ordinary people who, instead of spending time learning to accept themselves and their bodies, were spending time in pain because they had their faces cut up and were constantly being harassed to change themselves. It was easily one of the most embarrassing things I found on TV. It made me imagine a world in which kids grow up not learning about their bodies by playing doctor, but by playing Extreme Makeover instead.
Reality TV at its best -- and there are some good shows -- bases itself on a real-life situation that has all the drama and direction of a real story. Most of the time, this comes from watching a group of people interact. Shows such as Survivor get their plotlines from the relationships of real people who are put in heightened situations. It's not the dangerous tropical environments and absurd physical challenges that the contestants endure that make that show exciting. The fun comes from seeing who hates whom, and how they interact with one another through the course of whatever the show's producers throw at them.
Cooking shows are also great reality TV experiences, since it's hard to fake cooking a meal in real-time with cameras all over the kitchen. Iron Chef, a Japanese show on the Food Channel, takes this to the extreme, challenging guest chefs to face an "Iron Chef" in a game-show setting as they cook elaborate meals involving special ingredients. All the hilarious dubbing -- reminiscent of a Godzilla movie -- and pyrotechnic production values take second place to watching these people create miniature works of art with food.
Slightly less colorful, but still intriguingly real, are morning news shows. The men and women who host these programs seem to spend much more time on camera holding the audience's attention than their counterparts in the evening. They not only deliver information and move the show along, they also take time to reveal a little bit about their personalities every day. That's not an easy job, especially when you have to do it first thing in the morning. After sampling everything available in Spokane, I need to bow down to the graceful and very charming job that Shelly Monahan and Dave Cotton do on Q6. And they were doing it in real time, just a few blocks away from my home.
As for the more traditional reality shows, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Monster House stood out. When they really worked, they were like sitcoms, with casts of complex characters dealing with their issues. But instead of "talking to your kids about drugs," or "successful marriages require patience," the lessons in these shows were things like "choosing skincare product," and "when you're building a carved-foam cover for your entertainment center, make sure the filler is dry before you spray on the hard-coat." These may not be the most important lessons we can learn in life, but they do have some practical value.
What television does best, though, is make us think about television. We can certainly find plenty of information on TV, and there are occasionally shows that ask us to reflect on the world around us. But even channels like the Discovery Channel -- one of those channels that people name when they want to show how much they're above watching ordinary television -- followed a program about plastic surgery with an hour-long special on the extent of Michael Jackson's facial changes. Even on news channels, what do you hear? Reporters talking about scandals that involve celebrities that can be seen on MTV, or CBS, or some other television channel. Commentators using examples from television to prove their points and reacting to television shows to further their cause. Crawling headlines that, along with the listing of current events, contain notices of upcoming television shows. TV is like a giant machine that talks about itself more than it ever talks about the world.
This finally hit me at the end of my trial month. As the hours added up, I started realizing that when I was watching TV, I wasn't visiting with my friends. I wasn't out walking around my neighborhood. I wasn't cooking dinner. I wasn't reading a book or having sex. I was sitting in my home, allowing television networks and corporations to pour advertising into my mind, giving minutes and hours to something that had no intention of giving me anything back in return. I didn't even feel the rush of participation that great a book or movie can offer.
After watching TV I felt I had missed something. Maybe reality TV has become so successful because we increasingly look toward our televisions to fill our lives with something that looks and feels like real life. But while the people on the screen may be visiting with their friends, exploring the world around them, preparing food or thinking about books -- we're not.
When we've given up so much, it's not unreasonable to expect something back. Unfortunately, I didn't see it on TV.